Flying the RPA mission

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The aircraft is ready to fly, the ground control stations are up and running, and the crews have been briefed. Now it’s time to fly the remotely piloted aircraft.

The pilot, sensor operator, and mission intelligence coordinator step into the control station to prepare for flight, but they’re not alone; they are joined by other Airmen, each in their respective locations.

With the engines whirring up to speed, the launch and recovery element crew begins launch procedures for aircraft takeoff from the area of responsibility downrange.

"The launch and recovery element is responsible for conducting the launches and recoveries of the MQ-1B and MQ-9 aircraft,” said Tech. Sgt. Kory, the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing NCO in charge of the commander’s action group. “The LRE is located within range for C-band line-of-sight to conduct its operations in the traffic pattern, terminal area, and on the airfield. The LRE is responsible to power-up the aircraft Ku-band satellite terminal and hand the aircraft over to the mission control element crew.”

Aided by line-of-sight ground data terminals downrange, which are maintained by the 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron, the LRE crew launches the aircraft and climbs to an altitude where they can hand control of the aircraft off to the mission control element located stateside, via satellite links.

“During the hand off of the aircraft, ACMS maintainers in the (ground control station) enable and ensure a good Ku link to the MCE crews,” said Senior Airman Robert, a 432nd ACMS training monitor.

After the hand-off, the mission control element crew will fly the aircraft and carry out the mission, in of the specified mission areas: intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); close-air support (CAS); air interdiction; combat search and rescue; or strike coordination and reconnaissance.

“RPAs allow us to not only conduct ISR and CAS, but also buddy lase for other assets, perform convoy and raid overwatch and even provide humanitarian support,” said Maj. Patrick, the 432nd Wing chief of combat plans. “The versatility of these aircraft give the supported commander a variety of options.”

While the pilot is busy flying the aircraft and the sensor operator is operating the multi-spectral targeting system (MTS ball), the mission coordinator is also engaged by providing real-time intelligence.

“They’re looking for changes in terrain, weather, threats, and weapons systems because intelligence personnel can provide everything real time to the pilot and sensor (MTS ball),” said Senior Airman Aaron, a 432nd WG/432nd AEW intelligence evaluator.

Also supporting the crew is the distributed ground system, a group of imagery analysts who watch the live feed coming from the aircraft. They are able to determine the difference between a woman holding a child and a man holding a gun on zoomed-in images.

Mission tasks are given by the air operations centers under the respective combatant commands. The air operations center determines where the aircraft will go, what mission is needed, and also give orders and guidance should the need for change occur.

The wing operations center (WOC) acts as a central hub for critical mission support to the aircrew to accomplish the tasking orders from an air operations center.

“The main job of the WOC is to take care of the guys flying the mission to ensure mission success,” said Maj. Steven, the 432nd WG/432nd AEW WOC deputy director. “In the WOC we’re making sure crews are available, the weather is good, and planes can take off and fly with no problems, basically we’re monitoring all the factors so the mission can go smoothly.”

During the mission, if a strike is needed, a joint terminal attack controller can radio an RPA for help to coordinate an attack on enemy forces.

"Partnering two different capabilities from the air and ground provides us with the ability to develop patterns of life for targets," said a JTAC assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command. "If and when the time comes to strike, we can do so with accuracy. This is instrumental in moving to a safer military for future conflicts. Not to mention, having the RPAs provide overwatch from the sky makes us feel safer as well."

Supporting troops on the ground has been a frequent use for the RPA community in recent years. In some instances, RPAs are able to track high-value targets at night using an invisible infrared laser, which helps designate and illuminate targets for ground forces.

If the need for a strike arises, the crew is prepared at a moment’s notice with precision accuracy.

Not only can RPAs strike static targets, but also because of the high loitering time, moving targets as well.

Because a combat air patrol is flown on a continuous basis, revolving shifts of Airmen in every career filed rotate throughout the CAP before the plane is landed and another one takes its place.

After the mission is completed and the plane is ready to land, the mission control element will fly back to base, handing the aircraft back to the launch and recovery crew for landing.

(Editor’s note: The last names in this story have been removed for security reasons.)